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Opinion | What Will Motivate More Parents to Vaccinate Their Kids?

But for the most part they said they wanted more time, and they really, really did not want to feel pressured. Katherine Coon, in Rochester, N.Y., who has boys ages 13, 8 and 5, said that as a patient, she’s experienced two medical mistakes, including one while giving birth, and that her resulting distrust about the medical establishment contributes to her hesitation about vaccinating her kids against Covid.

While her children have all their other vaccines, including flu shots, she said, “I want to take a little longer to get there” when it comes to Covid. Even though it would pain her, she said, she’d consider voting Republican in the midterms for the first time “in relation to the Covid vaccine.”

We shouldn’t be surprised that the majority of parents with kids under 12 need more time to feel comfortable. As Carroll pointed out to me, the varicella (chickenpox) vaccine was not immediately taken up by parents. As he wrote in The Atlantic in September:

Parents tend to be skeptical of new vaccines. Whenever one is introduced, many of them are initially hesitant to adopt it. Take the varicella vaccine, for instance. Approved by the F.D.A. in 1995, it protects against the virus that causes chickenpox, an extremely contagious, common and unpleasant childhood infection. Even though the vaccine was highly effective and showed few side effects, uptake levels were initially low, with only 34 percent of eligible adolescents fully immunized by 2008.

The varicella vaccination rates improved a lot over time, he pointed out, and were about 90 percent by 2018. While all 50 states require the varicella vaccine in school settings, it took years for those requirements to be instituted, and each state had a different time frame. (Neither Gandhi nor Carroll thought Covid vaccine mandates were coming soon for public schools in most of the United States.)

And there is some evidence suggesting that pushing too hard to convince parents to get their kids vaccinated could backfire, and make some of them even more hesitant. Writing for The Times in 2019, Carroll noted that in 2014, the Dartmouth College political scientist Brendan Nyhan, who researches misperceptions about politics and health care, co-wrote a study in the journal Pediatrics that showed, in Carroll’s words, that “a variety of interventions intended to convince parents that vaccines didn’t cause autism led to even fewer concerned parents saying they’d vaccinate their children.” In the same article, Carroll cited a study published in 2015 in the journal Vaccine, also co-written by Nyhan, that showed “that giving corrective information about the flu vaccine led patients most concerned about side effects to be less likely to get the vaccine.” Information overload, in other words, can backfire.

Trust in public health experts has declined over the past few years, and that’s a scary thing to consider. If the Covid vaccine for kids is pushed too aggressively, or parents feel they’re being publicly shamed for not getting it for their children, that may hurt efforts to build trust and persuade people. In the worst-case scenario, there is a future epidemic that is very deadly for children, and parents will simply refuse to allow their children to be vaccinated or treated. Most parents just want to keep their kids safe and healthy. The conversation needs to start there.

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